July 22, 2015

Contesting the Caliphate

By Marc Lynch

On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the Caliph, extending his position as the ruler of the Islamic State and claiming leadership of all Muslims. A remarkable range of media, pundits, analysts and politicians took this extraordinary claim by the little-known leader of an extremist violent insurgency at close to face value. The Caliphate argument became a proxy for a much broader debate over the last year about the relationship between Islam and the Islamic State that crystallized around Graeme Wood’s widely cited argument that “the Islamic State is Islamic. VeryIslamic.”

While there have been many thoughtful and productive contributions to that debate, the overall discussion was somewhat frustrating. How would we knowwhether the Islamic State’s ideology resonated with Muslim publics or was authentically Islamic? How would we know whether such resonance mattered? What kind of evidence could (even in principle) prove or disprove such arguments? The participants in the public debate often seem to be talking past one another, with no clear distinction between causal arguments, policy recommendations and normative assertions. It is not simply that observers disagreed about the evidence; it was that they did not agree about what should count as evidence or even whether evidence was needed.

For some observers, the fact that the vast majority of Muslims reject Baghdadi’s claim is dispositive: of course his claims to the Caliphate are patently absurd, if not offensive. For others, the fact that the Islamic State consistently presents itself in Islamic terms, governs according to its view of Islamic law and manifestly inspires a small but intensely motivated number of Muslims is equally obviously decisive. For still others, what obviously matters is how close the Islamic State’s rhetoric and practice adheres to some authentic essence of true Islam, regardless of how others regard it.

What can political science contribute to resolving questions such as “how Islamic is the Islamic State” or “how legitimate is Baghdadi’s claim to the Caliphate”? Such questions should be placed within a much broader set of theoretical arguments about the role of ideas, identity and culture in politics. In April, the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Transatlantic Academy convened an interdisciplinary group of scholars, including academics from Middle East studies, political science, history and religious studies, to discuss how to think about the role of Islam in political order. The essays prepared for the workshop have now been published as a special issue in the POMEPS Studies series, available for free download here.


The essays in this collection suggest a wide array of methods and conceptual frameworks for evaluating Islam’s role in politics. Lindsay Benstead, Amaney Jamal and Ellen Lust use a survey experiment to assess how perceptions of religiosity affect Tunisian voting choices. Daniel Philpott examines the treatment of religious freedom by Muslim-majority countries in broad cross-national perspective, while Elizabeth Shakman Hurd challenges the conceptual foundations of the “religious freedom” policy agenda. Nathan Brown and Jocelyne Cesari look closely at how Arab states have incorporated Islam into their political systems, while John Owen distills the lessons of European history for Islamic democracy. Muqtedar Khan examines the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s political strategy, and Rory McCarthy explores how Tunisia’s Islamists responded to electoral defeat.

The diversity of these contributions highlights that there is no single political science perspective on the Islamic-ness of the Islamic State or Baghdadi’s Caliphate. Contributors to the symposium argue that the Islamic State should be seen as a fairly ordinary insurgency, that it should be seen as a radically new political phenomenon that fundamentally challenges international society, and that its ideology (whether or not sincere) represents a dramatic new type of security threat to the states of the region. The contribution of political scientists should not be to provide a single answer but to better frame the questions and the right methods for evaluating the evidence offered in support of competing answers. There is no obvious reason that the ideology of the Islamic State should be impervious to research designs such as Tarek Masoud’s careful analysis of Egyptian voting behavior and Steven Brooke’s rigorous assessment of Islamist social service provision.

After surveying the large and growing literature on the Caliphate, I came up with at least nine different types of argument. These are not mutually exclusive, but they often rest on very different assumptions, require very different types of evidence and could lead to very different analytical conclusions and policy responses.

Personal qualities: One common claim is that Baghdadi makes for a plausible Caliph because he personally manifests some of the ideal qualities of past Caliphs, such as the ability to deliver speeches in fluent classical Arabic and to claim Qurayshi descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Presumably, these personal qualities give his claim greater resonance than one made by an individual who lacks such qualities. Killing or discrediting Baghdadi personally, then, would presumably have a major impact on the perceived legitimacy of the Caliphate independently of other variables, such as the military fortunes of the Islamic State. This argument might be evaluated against the very mixed verdict of an increasingly well-developed literature about the impact of leadership decapitation on insurgencies.

Material powerAnother common claim is a Realist one that the legitimacy of Baghdadi’s Caliphate derives from its temporal power rather than from its rhetoric or cultural claims. The Caliphate is attractive because it is successful at capturing and controlling territory and exercising institutional authority over a significant number of people. This Realist notion that the attractiveness of ideas derives from worldly success suggests that the resonance of the Islamic State’s ideology will largely be a function of military success and effective governance. If the Islamic State loses control over territory and its prospects of success dim, then the Baghdadi claim would be diminished regardless of his personal qualities or Islamic authenticity. A small, poor, fragile, universally shunned and near-failed state would not be a convincing Caliphate. Military victory over the Islamic State, then, would presumably also diminish its ideological appeal and legitimacy. While intuitively plausible, this argument might be weighed against the “Phoenix Effect,” where defeated insurgencies and movements rise from the ashes even stronger and better adapted than before; consider the resurgence of al-Qaeda after its crushing 2001 defeat in Afghanistan, or of the Islamic State after its setbacks in Iraq between 2007 and 2010.


Organizational culture: Another common claim is that the Islamicness of the Islamic State can be observed in its internal organization, discourse, norms and laws. The constructivist international relations tradition which crystallized around Peter Katzenstein’s “The Culture of National Security” laid out multiple causal pathways by which domestic norms and identity might shape political behavior. Whether or not sincerely held, the Islamic identity and norms of the Islamic State could well lead it to behave in ways the Realist would find irrational. Katzenstein’s carefully drawn distinctions between norms internalized into a logic of appropriateness and norms strategically deployed by cynical actors might help make sense of questions, such as the role of former Baathists in the Islamic State or the likelihood of its being socialized into normal international affairs.

Mass public support: Another common argument is that the Islamic State’s power lies in its ability to command the support of a wide swathe of Muslim public opinion. This argument, familiar to studies of al-Qaeda in the previous decade or of mainstream Islamist movements more recently, would test the Caliphate’s legitimacy by reading surveys of the views of mainstream mass Muslim publics. This might be straightforward opinion polling about the movement’s popularity (a dangerous and likely misleading business in countries where admitting to sympathy with a terrorist group to a stranger would be unwise). Or it could mean indirect matching between public opinion and Baghdadi’s claimed goals (imposing Islamic law, expelling Western influence), as Shadi Hamid attempted in an essay last year. Any reassurance derived from survey evidence of large-scale rejection of the Islamic State by mass publics might be weighed, however, against the possibility that mainstream public rejection might only increase the appeal of the jihadist group among alienated individuals primed to hate the status quo.

Extremist mobilization: Mass sympathy may be less important to the Islamic State than its ability to mobilize a small radical base into action, whether to travel to Syria or to join terrorist campaigns at home. If the decisive indicator of legitimacy is the ability to get small numbers of people to mobilize sufficiently to join the struggle, then the indicator should be the flow of foreign fighters into the Islamic State or the emergence of affiliated organizations in new places. The views of the majority would not especially matter, except perhaps in terms of creating an enabling environment. If this is what matters, then the appropriate course of action might be narrow Counter Violent Extremism programming designed to prevent the recruitment of at-risk individuals and disrupt recruitment networks. It should be weighed against the wide variety of individual-level motivations, which can drive an alienated, marginal individual to extreme behaviors.

Affiliate groups: Some consider the affiliation decisions of other jihadist groups to be the metric of influence that matters the most. Where in the previous decade local jihadist groups chose to brand themselves as al-Qaeda affiliates, today many choose to brand themselves as Islamic State provinces. Such declarations of loyalty by organizations, and the ability of those affiliates to carry out violent acts under its flag, could function independently of the fortunes of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, its mass popularity and the scholarly consensus. This metric might be weighed, as Dan Byman has argued, against the many potential burdens associated with such affiliates, including the loss of control and the provisional nature of such affiliations.

Media presence: It could be that the Islamic State’s appeal is shaped by its media portrayal, which might be only tangentially related to its real capabilities on the ground or to its genuine levels of support among mass publics or religious scholars. If the decisive indicator is media coverage, inflating an otherwise marginal figure into a major political force, then the indicator should be the amount of coverage – positive or negative – in a wide range of media platforms. The violent spectaculars for which the Islamic State has become famous would be net positive if they force coverage of the Caliphate, even if they drove revulsion among potential mass constituents. This metric would suggest pushing for less media attention to the Islamic State, with a media blackout and social media takedowns more effective than high-profile “wars of ideas” or public exposure of its many evils. This might be read against the robust jihadist media ecosystem capable of reaching potential supporters regardless of mainstream media coverage.

Scholarly consensus: For some, the decisive indicator of legitimacy is whether some group of scholars and Islamic authorities accepts Baghdadi’s claims. The indicator would not be the discourse among mass publics or foot soldiers but among a small set of influential religious authorities. Which authorities matter then becomes an obvious methodological question. Mainstream, state-affiliated Islamic authorities have consistently rejected Baghdadi’s claim, as have Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamists. His claim has more, but nowhere close to universal, support among the small set of jihadist authorities. If this consensus is what matters, then the appropriate course of action would be the mobilization of religious authorities to criticize Islamic State jurisprudence and Baghdadi’s religious claims. But given the skepticism with which many Arabs view regime-affiliated religious figures, such mobilization could well discredit the scholars as undermine the Islamic State.


Authenticity: Finally, many analysts propose to independently assess the legitimacy of the Caliphate through their own interpretive reading of Islamic texts and practice. It is difficult to assess personal beliefs that the Islamic State is the most authentic form of Islam, and in practice the authenticity claim tends to dissolve into one of the behaviors discussed above (mass opinion, extremist mobilization, organizational affiliation, scholarly consensus, etc.). Authenticity arguments can lead to some especially dangerous policy proposals, such as the recurrent proposals that the United States lead efforts to reform Islam itself. If Islam is not in fact the problem, then such reform efforts could waste enormous resources to no benefit – or, even worse, actually help the Islamic State by revealing the inauthenticity of its mainstream critics.

This catalog of the types of arguments about the Islamic State does not tell us which is right, of course. The purpose of this exercise is less to advance an argument than to craft ways to devise more effective tests of the various propositions running through the public debate. I tend to see the Islamic State more as a fairly ordinary insurgency that has been unduly mystified and exoticized in the public discourse. But others have advanced sophisticated and compelling arguments about the importance of ideology which deserve attention.

Islam’s political role, in the Islamic State or elsewhere, is not fundamentally different from the many other cultural, identity and ideational factors commonly analyzed by political scientists. Clearly, the Islamic State has been unusually effective at leveraging its military success and propaganda into success in other areas, especially in winning organizational affiliates, mobilizing small numbers of extremists and commanding the support of a small group of scholars. That can hardly be ignored. It matters when actors understand themselves to be acting on the basis of religion (or any other identity or set of cultural practices) or when they adapt their strategic calculations to their beliefs about the salience of Islam in the political realm – even if Elizabeth Shakman Hurd is right that it makes little sense to view Islam as an actor or as a direct cause of anything. The Islamic State may be a thoroughly strategic actor with little claim on mass religious authority, but it is still necessary to understand its conception of Islam in order to explain its strategic choices and their mobilizational appeal.

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